Washington’s New Policy to Counter Iran: Syria and Beyond
After the initial turmoil in the White House, the Trump Administration has apparently settled on a strategy to counter Iran’s hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East. Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, the new National Security Adviser, and Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, both highly respected military leaders with deep knowledge of the region, are behind the new policy. The two generals are tight-lipped about the details, but the developments on the ground and Tehran’s reaction offer an outline of the emerging strategy.
There are two stages to their plan. In the first stage, the United States would try to minimize Tehran’s gains stemming from the involvement in the Syrian civil war. On March 8, 2017, Nikki Haley, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, said that Washington’s goal in the pending negotiations to end the conflict is to force Iran and its proxies out of Syria. As Haley put it, “This is very much about a political solution now and that basically means that Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists. We've got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out…[and] we're securing the borders for our allies as well.”
To achieve this goal, Iran has been blocked from the major campaign to dislodge ISIS from Raqqa and the north of Syria. Originally, the United States, Russia, and Turkey were expected to be involved in the assault, a plan which three generals - Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Valery Gerasimov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, and Hulusi Akar, Chief of Staff of the Turkish Army - discussed in the Turkish town of Antalya on March 7, 2017. The Pentagon had subsequently made it known that the performance of the Turkish military in liberating the town of Al Bab was satisfactory. But there are rumors that the Turkish forces would be replaced with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has a large Syrian Kurdish component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Whatever the ultimate configuration, the Iranians have been marginalized, a fact that had provoked anxiety in Tehran. Although Iran is part of the Astana talks, the regime understands that military facts on the ground dictate political realities.
In addition, the Iranians must contend with the budding Russian-American relation. Despite the fallout from the alleged Russian interference in the elections, the U.S. administration is clearly embracing the Russians as partners in Syria - a historic move with side benefits for both sides. Vladimir Putin hopes to parley his collaboration with Washington to relieve some pressure from the sanctions imposed in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its continuous inference in Eastern Ukraine. Washington has steadily increased the diplomatic and financial costs of Russia’s aggressive actions: the sanctions have caused the Russian ruble to lose 50 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. According to the World Bank, Russia’s GDP which was $2.053 trillion (in U.S. dollars) in 2014, dropped to $1.267 trillion in 2016.
For its part, the Trump Administration hopes to use Putin, the real “ruler” of Damascus, to pressure Iran into leaving Syria after an agreement is reached. At the very minimum, the Pentagon would like to see a Russian veto on the Iranian regime’s plan to build a port in Latakia, as part of a more ambitious plan to create a Shi’ite land bridge to the Mediterranean.
Peeling Moscow off the Mullahs should be made easier because Tehran has emerged as a serious competitor of Russian gas exports. Iran has vast gas deposits, which, with the removal of sanctions, Western companies would find attractive. Sanction relief unblocked access to cheap Iranian gas - $2.82 per Million Metric British Thermal Unit (MBTU) compared to $5.88 of Russia - which can undercut Russian exports to both China and Europe. Washington’s move against Tehran would strengthen Moscow’s position as a gas exporter, and would also make it more attractive to foreign investors who value political stability for their investments.
The second part of the Mattis-McMaster plan is to create a Sunni axis to contain and rollback the Iran-led Shi’ite axis. King Salman, the Saudi ruler, has been designated as the lynchpin of the Sunni alliance, which would also include the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and Turkey. General Mattis elaborated on the issue during a visit to the UAE on February 18, 2017. Mattis reaffirmed the strong U.S.-Saudi defense partnership and the importance of the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship, particularly to counter new and emerging security challenges. Most importantly, on March 14, 2017, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman met with President Trump, in what was described as a “historic turning point” in the relations between the two countries. The two leaders stated that “Iran is trying to establish legitimacy in the Arab world through supporting terrorist organizations.”
It is hardly surprising that the Saudi monarchy would sign up for this role. Iran’s regional ambitions and aggressive policy of implementing them, including promoting the Houthi rebellion in Yemen has irritated Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has also taken a dim view of Iran’s steadfast support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and its meddling in Iraq and Bahrain. Unlike his predecessor, King Salman vowed to respond strongly to Iranian provocations, a decision which led to the Saudi intervention in the civil war in Yemen. Lately, the Saudis have also tried to strengthen relations with Iraq, a country which the Iranians considered to be within the Shi’ite axis.
The Turkish position is only slightly less surprising. Although Iran and Turkey have a long history of rivalry, in recent years both countries patched up their relations to pursue mutually advantageous economic ties. The volume of trade in 2014 was $13.7 billion and both countries hope to boost their trade to $30 billion in the future. However, the relations soured because President Erdogan, a sworn enemy of Bashar al-Assad, blamed Iran for propping the Assad Regime. The anti-ISIS offensive in Mosul had created further fissures. Having established a strong influence in Iraq in the wake of the American invasion in 2003, Tehran hoped to expand its reach around Mosul in favor of the Shia dominance. To prevent this, however, Turkey has sent its own troops to areas bordering Mosul, an action which Tehran strongly rebuked. The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador to lodge an official objection, but Tehran has few options, because the United States, which coordinates the fight against ISIS, has given Ankara a green light to operate in Iraq as a counterpart to Iran’s dominance aspiration.
President Erdogan continued the feud with the Iranian Regime during a visit to Bahrain on February 14, 2017. Alluding to the regime’s effort to foment unrest in the strategically located kingdom, the Turkish president indicated that Turkey will not tolerate Iran’s aggression anymore. He was also unhappy with Iran’s intervention in Iraq. Erdogan blamed Iran for promoting 'Persian nationalism' in the region, saying that Iranians are working toward the disintegration of the Iraqi state by exacerbating religious and ethnic conflicts. In his words, “there is Persian nationalism here, we have to prevent this. We cannot just watch this oppression.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who appeared a short time later at the Munich Security Conference, attacked Iran for promoting Shi’ism in Syria and Iraq and has created instability in the region with its actions.
Arguably, the most surprising factor in the Sunni axis is the tacit support which Israel has provided in intelligence. The clandestine relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have been developing since 2016. Gen. Anwar Eshki, a senior retired Saudi general visited Israel openly in July 2016 and met with Israel’s Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold and Major General Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government. In 2015, the two generals met at the Washington-based Council on Foreign relations and identified Iran as the chief threat to regional stability. There have even been claims that the Saudis were ready to provide Israel with an air corridor and air bases in case Israel decides to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. The Jerusalem Post noted that since the beginning of 2014 there have been five secret meetings between the Saudis and Israeli intelligence officials to discuss Iran.
Tehran reacted with great frustration to these developments. The Foreign Ministry complained again about the harsh tone of Erdogan and Cavusoglu. However, the main concern was directed toward Saudi Arabia and the United States. The Iranian media pointed out that the two countries are in the process of creating NATO 2, a regional alliance against Iran. Outlets representing the Revolutionary Guards ridiculed the Saudi military’s prowess and warned Washington to stay away from Yemen. As always, the most serious threats were reserved for Israel, where Iran relies on its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Indeed, in a move backed by the regime, Hamas named the hardline military commander Yahya Sinwar, to lead Gaza.
Still, despite the Guards posturing and bluster, there is a sense that, were it to succeed, the Mattis-McMaster plan would seriously diminish Iran’s ability to use terror in its hegemonic quest in the region.